The six-issue, second Super Powers mini-series from 1985, written by Paul Kupperberg, penciled by Jack Kirby, and inked by Greg Theakston, has been almost completely ignored by critics. All three Super Powers mini-series were produced in order to tie into DC’s then-running toy line, titled The Super Powers Collection, produced by Kenner and begun in 1984. DC began slapping the Super Powers logo, minus “Collection,” on merchandizing such as lunchboxes, while Hanna-Barbera revived its animated Super Friends show (first begun in 1973) with “Super Powers” in the title. DC only created the comic as a tie-in. Toy and cartoon tie-in comics, not generally marked by quality or creative vision, are rarely appreciated. Partly because of this, these three mini-series have often been ignored by comics history.
Because of its origins, although the comic featured a line-up of heroes like the traditional Justice League, the series avoided that moniker, much as the cartoon did. And there’s also no pretending that Super Powers offers much sophistication. Only in the third mini-series is there even a pretense of characterization. This isn’t Identity Crisis. At a time when revisionism was pushing super-hero comics into new territory, Super Powers seemed behind the times.
But these apparent disadvantages also serve as advantages for the comic. Tying into a toy line freed Super Powers from DC continuity. This can especially be a problem with the Justice League, because its various members each had their own continuity, in addition to the team’s history. Super Powers didn’t have to reflect the turmoil its heroes were going through in their own titles or in Crisis on Infinite Earths, which was busy redefining the entire DC Universe at the time.
True, Super Powers had to avoid calling its team of heroes the Justice League and its line-up was determined by the toys. But there can be no doubt that the cartoon (in all its incarnations) and comic were Justice League stories in everything but name. The cartoon featured many hints that this was, in fact, the Justice League, such as the team’s headquarters being called the Hall of Justice, and many of its original concepts and characters were subsequently introduced into DC’s Justice League.
Letting the toy line determine the League’s line-up also proved a benefit. At a time when Justice League of America was filled with new characters and second-stringers, DC’s big guns were teaming up in the pages of Super Powers. It was arguably more of a Justice League comic than the official Justice League comic.
Finally, while Super Powers was indeed behind the times, telling stories of old-school super-hero action, there’s nothing wrong with that mode per se. And Super Powers was perfectly positioned to be the full flowering of such traditional, un-self-conscious super-heroics. Over the preceding two decades, stories had grown longer, and the recent invention of the mini-series allowed for these longer stories to be complete in themselves. While the first two Super-Powers mini-series are episodic, they’re united by a single, overall threat. These might not be sophisticated tales, but they exhibit excellent narrative structure, however simple. And their length gives them an epic quality that most earlier Justice League stories lacked. Combine this with freedom from DC continuity, and Super Powers avoids the pitfalls that hamper many earlier, simpler stories.
In fact, Super Powers went further than most traditional super-hero stories, throwing in everything but the kitchen sink without regard to chronology, historical accuracy, or realism. Even as it was doing so, such elements were disappearing from super-hero stories, considered embarrassments, and they later returned only as self-conscious, deliberate refutations of revisionism; there was no going back. As such, Super Powers offers perhaps the final traditional super-hero story, raised to unapologetically wild, over-the-top, and even orgiastic heights.
Super Powers also has one advantage that no one would argue stems from an apparent downside: the involvement of comics legend Jack Kirby, who penciled the second mini-series. Indeed, Kirby fans are among the few who remember the mini-series at all. Kirby had come to DC Comics in the late 1970s, but the cancellation of the titles he created for DC led to a reduced output in the 1980s, during which he also worked on TV animation. Super Powers represents some of his very last, long-form work. Like the other talents who worked on the three Super Powers mini-series, Kirby didn’t adapt well to the revisionist tone then being applied to super-heroes. In every medium, massive change leads stars from the previous era to struggle to make the transition. Talkies killed the careers of most silent film stars, and “video killed the radio star,” as the Buggles sang on MTV’s very first music video (just after midnight on 1 August 1981). In comics, the bombastic wonders of Kirby were giving way to the intellectual precision of Alan Moore. Super Powers wasn’t just the full flowering of an old but passing style; it was also created by an indisputed master of that passing era, arguably at the height of his powers.
The second Super Powers mini-series (all three were simply titled Super Powers, without any indication of series number) is the best of the three, largely due to Jack Kirby’s pencils. But Kirby, who had plotted the first mini-series, was never as successful as a writer, so Paul Kupperberg stepped in to script this second series. The series saw its heroes (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Flash, Aquaman, Martian Manhunter, Robin, Hawkman, Green Arrow, Firestorm, Red Tornado, and Dr. Fate) contend against Darkseid and his minions: Desaad, Kalabak, Mantis, Steppenwolf, and seemingly endless legions of Parademons.
Kirby had himself created these villains as part of his Fourth World stories in the late 1970s. There, Darkseid’s forces, based on the dystopian planet Apokolips, were counterposed to good guys based on the utopian planet New Genesis. Since Kirby’s development of the character, the wider DC Universe had adopted Darkseid as a major villain, particularly in Justice League of America and Legion of Super-Heroes. The stony despot seemed uniquely suited for this role: although immensely powerful and capable of firing target-seeking Omega beams from his eyes, he stayed removed from physical conflict, seeming very much above it, instead manipulating events through various minions. In this way, the heroes had to peel away his machinations before confronting him. But drawn by other artists, he rarely looked quite as menacing, and those stories often included the New Genesis characters. But here, there’s no mention of the New Genesis characters, and there are two reasons for this omission. First, earlier in 1985, Kirby had himself destroyed New Genesis in The Hunger Dogs (a.k.a. DC Graphic Novel #4), his attempt to wrap up his Fourth World stories in a single graphic novel. Second, the New Genesis characters didn’t have toys made of them. But this omission is all for the better, since it keeps the narrative streamlined. Here, freed from continuity and the need to involve New Genesis, Darkseid becomes the ultimate villain, a worthwhile opposite to these major assembled heroes.
This second Super Powers mini-series, which requires no knowledge of the first, is organized around Darkseid’s plan to plant seeds within Earth. Powered by Darkseid’s Omega energy, these seeds aggressively burrow their roots towards the Earth’s core. Unless stopped, they will then tap the core’s energy to terraform the planet into a noxious wasteland like Apokolips, killing much of the population and rendering Earth ripe for colonization and enslavement. Never mind how these seeds, while powerful and alien, would survive magma and molten metal. The idea is cool, so just roll with it. To complicate matters, each seed’s Omega energy causes the unpredicted side-effect of opening temporal portals when the seeds are attacked. This too isn’t logical, but who cares? The point is wild, old-school super-hero fun, and that’s just what we get. And to make matters even more fun, each seed is located in an exotic location: Stonehenge, a New York City subway, Easter Island, the Roman Coliseum, and the deserts of Arizona. Each location also has its own unique, dramatic temporal equivalent. The result is a wild narrative with exotic locales – past, present, and future – that is nonetheless organized around these big-name heroes confronting their ultimate foe.
This also means that the narrative remains largely episodic, as the heroes divide into groups and battle Darkseid’s minions to destroy the seeds. There are five seeds, so each issue features a different group of heroes confront Darkseid’s minions at one of the seeds, leaving everyone to unite to confront Darkseid himself in the sixth and final issue. This structure recalls the earliest Justice League stories, in which writers like Gardner Fox had the team split up to tackle various aspects of a threat, then reunite at the end of the issue. This narrative technique gave each hero a little space to shine, avoiding them getting lost in the shuffle. Here, however, this very traditional narrative technique will be given a full six issues to come to fruition – another way in which this story represents the full flowering of that older style, then going out of fashion.
The structure is a little more complex than this, however. Issue #1 begins with a prologue of sorts, setting up the story, before focusing on the first team of heroes at the first seed. Issues #2-4 each contain a brief interlude, showing the team from the following issue arriving at their location, often ending on a cliffhanger of sorts that, while not placed at the end of the issue, still sets up the following issue in a dramatic manner. Issues #1-5 also feature Darkseid, as he reveals his plans and Desaad plots treachery, which keeps the series’s master villains in the reader’s mind. The only downside of this structure is that it means that the heroes’ encounters with the seeds happen roughly in chronological sequence, meaning that those heroes took radically different times to arrive at their different locations – and not in any way proportional to their distance. This is probably a consequence of each team’s encounter taking an issue, rather than a few pages, as in those old Justice League stories; readers at the time might not be troubled by sequences of a few pages occurring simultaneously, but they’d want to see some time progress over several issues. But even this reader expectation and the chronological flaw it produces could only have occurred at this particular moment in super-hero history, when traditional super-hero comics were giving way to the realism of revisionism.
Issue #1 (Sept 1985)’s prologue sets up the story before getting to the first seed. In fact, it begins in somewhat shocking circumstances, for those familiar with Darkseid as the distant ruler of Apokolips, as Darkseid is forced to flee his home planet, which is in the midst of revolution. This sets the story after The Hunger Dogs (released earlier in 1985), which ended with Apokolips severely damaged. The Hunger Dogs was originally considered as part of DC continuity, only to be removed a few years later, and its inclusion here raises the possibility that DC was confused about whether Super Powers was in continuity as well. At the very least, it’s worth mentioning that this makes this second series of Super Powers Kirby’s last involvement with these characters. True, he didn’t write the series, but he illustrated it, and its length is more than twice that of The Hunger Dogs. In any case, we don’t have to understand these concerns about continuity or what represents Kirby’s true vision to appreciate Super Powers. We don’t even have to understand the plot of The Hunger Dogs – only that we find Apokolips in the midst of revolution.
As the de facto prologue continues, Darkseid escapes through the sewers of Apokolips, reinforcing how this great monarch has been brought low. Convening with his minions, Desaad, Kalabak, and Steppenwolf, Darkseid doubts their commitment to him. Months later, Darkseid and company have taken over an abandoned city on Earth’s moon, apparently constructed by an advanced but long-dead civilization, which now serves as a staging ground from which to conquer Earth and transform it into a new Apokolips. The scene then shifts to Earth. After foiling a bank robbery, Martian Manhunter meets the rest of the heroes at the Hall of Justice. Batman recounts how spaceships have crash-landed on Earth, depositing large alien seeds at the five sites mentioned earlier, where the seeds are sending roots towards the planet’s core. Putting aside who’s responsible for the moment, the heroes split up to handle the various sites of the seeds. Considering the revolution on Apokolips, the construction of Darkseid’s moonbase, or the landing of these seeds on Earth, this material could easily comprise a full issue; yet here, such ideas fly fast and furious.
The rest of the first issue follows Aquaman and Martian Manhunter at Stonehenge, where they confront Desaad. Thrown back in time, they find themselves confronting King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. Manipulated by Desaad, Arthur’s knights defeat the heroes and promptly try to burn the green-skinned Martian Manhunter as a demon. Arthur and his knights, themselves ahistorical, are depicted in traditional romantic fashion as noble heroes, but their willingness to burn Martian Manhunter simultaneously demonstrates their superstitious Medieval outlook, invoking the (historically quite later) Spanish Inquisition. While the story makes this obvious enough, it doesn’t dwell on it, again moving the crazy story forward. After Aquaman saves Martian Manhunter, Desaad accidentally reveals his nature by referring to the heroes as such – which tips his hand to King Arthur. This is just the sort of unrealistic element that was all too common in traditional super-hero stories (recall that the X-Men villain Magneto actually called his group the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants), and such elements had been considered silly even before revisionism. But here, it comes off as light and campy, charming in its bright-colored stupidity. The issue ends with Aquaman and Martian Manhunter returning to the present, where they find that Desaad has fled. Here again, one could imagine Stonehenge and King Arthur killing an issue all by itself, but like the prologue or the odd riff of King Arthur ordering Martian Manhunter burned, the point seems to be packing as many wild ideas and juxtapositions into a single issue.
Issue #2 (Oct 1985) follows Green Arrow, Hawkman, and Red Tornado to Times Square, where they find a seed on a subway line. (During this sequence, a police officer, instead of showing bewilderment, wonderfully says, “I’ve been a cop in New York for twenty years. I can handle anything!”) Confronting Kalabak in the subway, the heroes are tossed millions of years into the past, where they meet dinosaurs. They beat Kalabak, who has tied Green Arrow to the front of his vehicle to serve as a human shield – a powerful image that, in a less jam-packed issue, might have even served as the cover. In the present, Martian Manhunter and Aquaman, having arrived in the subway, trigger the time portal, causing a stampede of dinosaurs to escape into New York; a Tyrannosaurus Rex (though never termed as such) burrows through concrete and smashes stands on the street before Martian Manhunter corrals it. Of course, everyone returns to their own time, and Kalabak escapes. The story is one of manic action, packed with crazy visuals, as if they justified themselves – any one of these could have been a complete story in itself.
Issue #3 (Nov 1985) focuses on Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, and Dr. Fate, who find the seed on Easter Island and confront Mantis, another Darkseid minion. (The heroes were briefly shown landing there last issue.) Green Lantern immediately promises to turn Mantis “from faithful minion to intensive care patient!” As with King Arthur, the story, utterly preferring pop culture to actual history, plays up Easter Island’s mystery and possible mystical and sci-fi connections. This continues as everyone is sent into the island’s past, where we discover that the natives apparently carved Easter Island’s famous stone heads in the shape of the powerful rocky aliens who once ruled them as slaves while preparing to conquer the planet. The natives, depicted very much as noble savages in need of white help, first bow before the heroes, then take the heroes prisoner, under orders from their stony masters, who themselves are manipulated by Mantis. Of course, the heroes defeat the aliens, thus stopping an unrecorded alien invasion in the past. This time, however, Mantis strands the heroes in the past, but they return using one of the aliens’ “time / space warp device[s].” In a nice twist, they find that the natives have built stone statues of the three heroes’ heads to accompany the island’s others. Green Lantern destroys them to keep their actions secret – which not only represents the loss of an important indigenous artifact but doesn’t even make sense. Hadn’t white explorers previously noted these odd three stone heads? Never mind: it’s a cool story, and that’s the point, not logic, in this stubbornly anti-revisionist series.
Issue #4 (Dec 1985) focuses on Superman and Firestorm in the Roman Coliseum. Just as #2 briefly showed the stars of #3 arriving on Easter Island, Superman and Firestorm arrived at the Coliseum in #3, where they mysteriously encountered a Roman gladiator speaking Latin. Here, the heroes defeat him, then confront Steppenwolf, who soon escapes back to 68 A.D. Superman follows him, Firestorm and displaced gladiator in hand, under his own power – an ability he rarely had and another clear indication of the story’s deliberate refusal to be realistic. That doesn’t mean the story isn’t well written, however. Case in point: as the three arrive in the past, the Roman gladiator remarks about “the gods,” underlining his polytheism; Superman quickly remarks about “Rao,” his Kryptonian god, underlining that he comes from an even more alien culture. Steppenwolf soon captures the heroes, binding them in Kryptonian manacles and an energy-draining collar to remove their powers. Naturally, the heroes are then thrown into the arena to fight lions, armed only with a trident and a short sword, while Steppenwolf watches with the emperor Nero, apparently his friend. Firestorm escapes his collar by reverting to his two alter egos, who combine to form the hero, then uses his powers to transmute Superman’s Kryptonite manacles to paper. Steppenwolf disappears back to the present, and Superman follows – again under his own power – with Firestorm.
Issue #5 (Jan 1986), focuses on Batman, Robin, and Flash in the Arizona desert. In their brief sequence in #4, Flash approached the seed and disappeared, apparently through time. As Batman and Robin approach the seed, hoards of Parademons materialize, and the Dynamic Duo is knocked through time as well. But this issue, entitled “Once Upon Tomorrow,” is unique in that it doesn’t feature a journey into the past but the future: to be specific, a possible future in which Darkseid has conquered Earth. This same idea would later be used twice by Grant Morrison, in his “Rock of Ages” storyline on JLA and the crossover Final Crisis. A comparison between this handling and that of Morrison, who sought to restore the genre’s sense of fun, may thus help to illustrate the series’s narrative mode.
Batman and Robin find themselves in a twisted version of Las Vegas, a city appropriately known for excess, only its over-the-top entertainment has been replaced by an amusement-park landscape of Darkseid statues and a population eager to enforce his totalitarian rule. Wearing super-hero costumes is punishable by “summary execution!” While clever and fun, there’s little here of the postmodern intelligence that Morrison would later bring to his versions of a Darkseid-ruled Earth – and that isn’t the point. Bombastic, over-the-top super-hero action is, and that’s why, in lieu of postmodern riffs on hegemony or quantum mechanics, a captured Batman and Robin are thrown into a gladiatorial arena and made to fight the current champion, a green monster called Mongo “Crusher” Monsoon. What’s not to love? It’s pure old-school fun.
Batman wins, of course, and the ringmaster proclaims him “the winnah and new champeen of New Earth.” The Parademons from the present then attack, having pursued Batman and Robin into the future. Flash, who had been captured himself after arriving in this future but who escaped (off-panel) by merely vibrating through his cage, comes to the heroes’ rescue – only for the pair to split up again. Flash’s lack of integration into the story is forced and illogical, but again it doesn’t matter. Batman and Robin return to the present via the Parademons’ technology, while Flash returns via his Cosmic Treadmill, which allows him to run through time and which still remains hidden in his old apartment building, now abandoned and dilapidated.
Of course, all five teams of heroes have been victorious, owing to the demands of the genre. But the story manages to have it both ways: while defeating Darkseid’s minions and gaining control of the seeds, the heroes have remained unable to destroy the seeds themselves, with one exception. At the end of issue #4, Superman and Firestorm find the Roman seed dead upon their return to the present. Apparently, the seeds drain power from the heroes as they travel through the portals they open. But Superman and Firestorm were unable to warn Batman, Robin, and Flash in time. Already present when the heroes return at the end of issue #5, they note this and warn that “the rest of the Super Powers are waiting for us.”
This turns out to be in preparation for an assault on Darkseid’s base on the moon, which is where we encounter the heroes, assembled together for the first time since issue #1, as the sixth and final issue (Feb 1986) opens. Here too, the groundwork has been laid throughout the series. In issue #1, Martian Manhunter found an odd rock at Stonehenge. In issue #2, after helping out in the New York subway, Martian Manhunter pursued this lead, apparently identifying the rock as a moonrock and confronting Darkseid on the moon. Beginning in that issue, sequences on the moon showed Darkseid recounting his plans, often with Desaad, who clearly harbored plans to betray his master. The best of these sequences occurs in issue #5, which opens with Darkseid delivering a bombastic oration which reflects Kirby’s own Shakespearean bent as a writer. It begins, “Earth! Time grows short for this fragile green world, floating so helplessly in space.”
Issue #6 fulfills the series’s promise with a high-stakes climax packed with several twists and turns. It opens with a scene of war, as Martian Manhunter, who alone has visited Darkseid’s base before, points to futuristic tanks winding up a road and prepares his colleagues for conflict. The story then explodes into a single, double-page image of the battle. Several sequences of individual pairings follow, perhaps most memorably of Steppenwolf’s axe cutting through Green Lantern’s shield. Superman, however, wins the day, taking out the last of Darkseid’s troops by remaining at a distance and belting them with debris – a much smarter application of his powers than his usual, close-quarters tactics.
Darkseid then appears as a giant hologram, offering to share Earth in return for loyalty, which the heroes of course refuse. So the giant hologram, somehow armed with a “neural disruptor,” simply reaches down and zaps them unconscious. While unrealistic, this does enhance the sense of Darkseid’s threat. The team may have defeated an army, but Darkseid is able to defeat them even in hologramatic form.
The heroes awake in glass cages that neutralize their powers, where they are forced to watch Darkseid’s triumph. The four remaining seeds have reached Earth’s core and await only a boost from Darkseid’s Omega effect. Climbing into an amplifier of this effect, he has only to fire his eyebeams into the console; the machine will then channel them into a cannon on the base’s wall and fire them at Earth, triggering the seeds. To rub in his victory, his machine further draws from the heroes’ powers.
How the heroes escape Darkseid’s trap is ingenious. Because the cages are “only effective against beings with a central nervous system,” Martian Manhunter turns into a gigantic, powerful, leech-like form, in which he will be unable to think but will still crave food and freedom, leading him to smash the glass. (Aquaman looks quite disgusted as Martian Manhunter transforms in the case beside him.) Changing back on a pre-arranged timer (a convenience of the plot), Martian Manhunter frees the others. (The panel in which he transforms back, depicting an in-between state in which his humanoid half looks distorted and squirms on the floor like a lizard, is particularly horrific.) Grant Morrison couldn’t have done better, imitating this wantonly unrealistic style over a decade later.
But it’s too late: Darkseid has sealed himself into his amplifying device, which generates a force field even Superman cannot break through. Over a page that successfully builds the tension, Darkseid fires his eyebeams, which the machine accumulates, then fires through the cannon at Earth. All seems lost. Super-hero melodrama doesn’t get much better than this.
Superman and Dr. Fate fly off through space, literally pursuing the beam on its path to Earth, while the other escaped heroes again battle Darkseid’s minions on the moon. Over Earth, the beam hits a satellite that splits it into four to target the four remaining seeds. Dr. Fate is able to transmute three of these beams, now weakened in strength. Superman throws himself in front of the last beam just before it hits the last seed, painfully absorbing the blast with his body. Meanwhile, on the moon, Darkseid finds that Desaad has rigged the amplifier device, causing it to feedback into the booth. Darkseid disintegrates in his own energy. But instead of Desaad inheriting a conquered Earth, he and Darkseid’s other minions are forced to flee, leaving the heroes to ponder whether Darkseid is truly dead and gone.
DC’s greatest heroes and arguably its greatest villain. Revolution on Apokolips. Stonehenge and King Arthur. New York and dinosaurs. Easter Island and an alien invasion in the past. Ancient Rome, where Steppenwolf watches with Nero as a powerless Superman fights in the Coliseum. A future where Darkseid rules Earth and even super-hero costumes are outlawed. A full-scale super-hero battle on the moon. The heroes helpless as Darkseid sits seconds away from decimating Earth. Martian Manhunter’s brilliant escape. And Darkseid’s death. All with Jack Kirby’s artwork, in his final work on his Fourth World characters. Sure, it’s silly, as older and more traditional super-hero stories tend to be. But it also exemplifies the best of that mode: epic and melodramatic and bombastic, with plenty of smart touches. And nothing could better illustrate the versatility of the Justice League – and of super-heroes in general.